It seems to me that most of our grandparents were accustomed to hard times. And through the generations, they passed to me a homestead heritage. In fact, I am sure they would shake their heads at what we waste today. Although I have never experienced truly hard times, there are so many who have. Would I be able to live and make do like a pioneer woman or a woman caring for her family in the dirty 30s and the war-time 40s? Do I have that same gumption that drove my ancestors to head west and forge a new life in the 1800s? To succeed or die trying? If it really came down to it I think I could.
This year I have been thanking my lucky stars that we don’t have to depend on our garden to help get us through the winter. My garden was poor, but luckily I can drive to the grocery store and buy my food with money. Pioneer folks had no grocery stores, no cars and no money. They had to grow their own food, raise or hunt their own meat, and preserve enough food to feed the family and livestock through the year. If they didn’t they might just starve. And let’s not forget cutting their own wood for heat, and building their own houses. It truly gives me an appreciation for my ancestors and their homestead heritage – most of whom practiced simple homesteading. Folks from the 30s and 40s had better access to store-bought necessities, but they had to deal with the Great Depression (no money) and rationing of just about everything. So they had to make do, they had to be self-sustaining.
Any time I attend a gathering of older folks I hear the stories of their homestead heritage… the dust bowl and the grasshoppers and the watering of the garden with a bucket to keep it alive. Cars with no gas and no tires. People actually starving. If you have watched Ken Burns’ documentary The Dust Bowl, you know what the rural people went through. Yes, we truly are lucky to live in this day and age.
What was available to my family in western South Dakota? Along with their chickens, pigs and sheep, there would have been deer, antelope, wild turkeys, rabbits and fish — you just had to hunt them down or fish them out first. In that respect, my grandmother living and raising her family in the thirties and forties wasn’t much different from her parents homesteading in the early 1900s. One thing in common was always the vegetable garden and root cellar. I can’t imagine living without a refrigerator and freezer. Their refrigerator was ice cut from the river.
My husband happens to love hunting. Some of his earliest memories are of hunting with his dad. He grew up eating a lot of game because they needed to. He still hunts today and we often have venison, pheasant, and hopefully one day elk, although my mighty elk hunter has come home empty-handed three years in a row now — probably due to the fact that he is more often busy shooting his camera. Rabbit is one thing I have never had before, but given the choice, I would dish up — no problem. I know my father ate a lot of rabbit as a child, and that was wild rabbit which I am told tastes gamey compared to today’s farm-raised rabbits.
My friend Misty Clugston from Babybird Acres raises meat rabbits as well as chickens, goats and more. I decided to give her a jingle and ask her all about raising rabbits. The first thing she said is that “if American’s didn’t consider eating rabbit as taboo then we could make a considerable dent in the hunger problem in this country.” They are homesteading on 5 acres, and are really working toward being self-sustaining. When Misty’s family began researching raising meat rabbits they discovered that one rabbit doe can produce around 200 pounds of meat per year (can you imagine that?) and they hardly take up any space at all. That sold them. They use every part of the rabbit, and what they don’t use personally they feed to their dog, who doesn’t complain one bit. She also said smoked rabbit is absolutely delicious.
That conversation led me to thinking about a passage from my 1944 “The American Woman’s Cookbook.”
Besides the fundamental difficulties always associated with wartime, the modern woman in America has become accustomed to foods prepared outside the home to be purchased by her in tin cans. Metal shortages are threatening these supplies and if they become acute, may cut them off altogether.
On the bright side is the eagerness of the modern woman to pit her intelligence against a knotty problem. She will need to learn not only to prepare all the food needed in her house-hold, but to raise her own garden and poultry and to save every last bit, as has not been done in several generations.
Today we really do live in the lap of luxury, even when we do embrace a homestead heritage. If our gardens fail, if the hunt turns up empty handed we just order more seeds and hit the grocery store. If it came right down to it would you have the skills be self-sustaining and know how to live off the grid? To grow enough food to last? Raise and butcher your own meat? Do you know what is food preservation and how to keep enough for the winter and lean times? For those who do and those who can, my hat is off to you.
Originally published in 2015 and regularly vetted for accuracy.